Monday, February 9, 2015

album review: 'then came the morning' by the lone bellow

You know, for as much as I advertise myself as one of the few critics on YouTube who bothers to cover country music, I really haven't been doing that good of a job on that lately. Let's change that a bit, shall we? Now to be fair to myself, there's not a lot that's really out right now - January tends to be a bit of a fallow period for mainstream country - and oh god, the country charts reflect that, as we're getting third and fourth singles from various artists landing traction where in most worlds they would never reach the charts. It's gotten so bad that Sam Hunt's bad pop disguised as worse country and Cole Swindell's flavourless mush is still rising up the charts, and that's just wrong on so many levels.

So in the mean time, let's talk about the indie scene, and let's start with The Lone Bellow, a Brooklyn-based trio that I probably should have covered in 2013 but that just slipped the net. And while I'm not usually one to point fingers and say that country should only come from Nashville or Texas, if you were to imagine a group that sounds like Brooklyn indie folk dabbling in a bit of snarled country rock and soul-inspired vocals, The Lone Bellow should jump to mind - a lot of plucky guitars and banjos that call to mind your standard Mumford & Sons wannabe, slightly softer distortion than the Drive-By Truckers or Sundy Best, and a male/female dichotomy that reminds me more than a bit of Little Big Town before that band went crazy on Pain Killer. But how do I feel about them? Well, they were pretty good and they tended to avoid the pretentious nonsense that puts me off a fair chunk of that brand of folk rock, but that first album always seemed to lack the textures, grit, or songwriting edge and nuance that would characterize other Americana-inspired acts like Doug Paisley or Bill Callahan. In fact, the group they reminded me most of was The Civil Wars, a group I mostly respected who wrote very pretty songs that occasionally had some moments of wit, but for the most part made very tasteful, pretty, safe music that never moved or interested me as much as I wanted. 

But I figured, 'Hey, it's their debut, originally driven off of songs frontman Zach Williams put together on his own. Give them a little time and a producer who can push their choral vocals into some harmonies and their instrumentation into more grit, and we could have something special here.' And when I heard they were working Aaron Dessner of The National, I thought it was a perfect match and definitely sought out their sophomore record Then Came The Morning - how is it?

Well, if we're looking for an album that shows a band with entirely too much direction, to the point where pinning down what the hell The Lone Bellow was trying to do with this record, I'd point here. And this has less to do with lyrics than instrumentation, which leads to a confused, messy record that really can't decide which Americana-inspired indie folk rock act it's trying to be, and instead of trying for one or going for a unique sound, it tries to sound like all of them and ends up being all the more lackluster for it. Which really does disappoint me, because there are ways they could have set themselves apart, and it just doesn't happen the way it should.

And I think the most important place to start would be the vocals. See, The Lone Bellow could easily have a unique sound in their scene thanks to their usage of male and female singers to structure harmonies... and yet instead on this record more often we get low rent interplay that could have pulled off of the more reserved cuts from Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. Hell, frontman Zach Williams even reminds me a little bit of Alex Ebert in his vocal tone and delivery, except minus the overblown howling bombast that gave that retro-psychedelic band some of their charm. I definitely prefer the moments where they choose to give Kanene Donehey Pipkin more vocal presence, as her more ragged alto adds the band some desperately needed vocal edge. Hell, I like Brian Elmquist's richer, more country-flavoured vocals a fair bit, especially on the acoustic ballad 'Watch Over Us', and while his upper range is thin, at least his voice fits the sound a little better than Williams' thin timbre. But even with that, the harmonies are nowhere near as intricate or interesting as they could be, and in my common complaint with groups like this, they rarely make the most of the male/female dichotomy in their songwriting to tell more of a story or set up unique scenarios. You'd think that for as many indie folk acts as The Lone Bellow were trying to imitate, Of Monsters And Men could have been one of them!

But really, what I was excited about on this record going in was the instrumentation and production, so how is that? Well, it is better - Aaron Dessner's touch is pretty unmistakable as the sounds are rougher and more textured - but it also reminded me more than a bit that really, a lot of the sound and approach of this album is very reminiscent of early albums from The National, especially with the alt-country elements. But really, it's here where the hodgepodge of elements that The Lone Bellow try to incorporate get even more scattershot - on the one hand you get stabs at soul with the title track or the stronger 'Cold As It Is' with the horns, organ, and strings or the lounge vibe of 'Diners' or even the surprisingly punchy blues grime of 'Heaven Don't Call Me Home' that show The Lone Bellow could kick more ass if they tried. But on some level, the presentation of these alternate genres lack teeth - either in the vocals sounding a little too composed, or in not bringing the rougher guitars more to the surface, they don't connect the way they should. The more country-flavoured tracks are better, with a little more steel guitar and ragged strings on tracks like 'Fake Roses', 'Call To War', or the smoky sound of 'If You Don't Love Me', but here I can't help but think that if you added a little more reverb, some of these songs would be rejected cuts from The War On Drugs. I'm definitely glad they added more sizzle to some of these songs and amped up that percussion on tracks like 'Take My Love', but many of these songs rely on building to heavy swelling crescendos, and bizarrely, they rarely raise a lot of impact with me. Some of it might actually be the production - for as much of an edge as Dessner's manages to add, we rarely ever reach those moments of raw climax. It's an issue that comes up in some of the mix balance as well - as much as I do like the steel guitar, putting it ahead of the guitar solo instead of allowing it to accent the sound on 'Diners' was a mistake, because it completely dampens the impact of the song. It doesn't help matters the sequencing of this album feels haphazard at best - keeping momentum is a real problem when you intercut much of this album with acoustic ballads that rarely can sustain the impact of the other tracks.

And this is an issue of songwriting. And look, the writing isn't bad - hell, I'd argue that they've got a knack for moments of detail to set a scene that most folk or mainstream country music seems to have lost in recent years in favour of pretentious bullshit or obnoxious pandering. And on a technical level, the poetry is good - it flows well, the rhyming is solid, the songs fit together. But even though this album does take stabs at rougher subject matter - loneliness, breakups, relationship trouble, the writing can't help but feel a little sanitized, never quite vulnerable or raw enough to really connect. Part of this is the framing, in that there are several songs that sidestep any actual blame or problems that might be with him, the title track being a prime example - sure, I get that there's a certain catharsis at playing a breakup song like a triumphant anthem, but the writing comes across as resoundingly petty for me. Or take the hookup track 'Take My Love', where he tries to win over a girl, and yet in the second verse we get the lyrics, 'When you told me you can't sleep/ Count your sins instead of sheep / Count the ways you feel weak / But that is not what I see'. Did The Lone Bellow borrow a songwriter from One Direction, because lines like that come across as patently disingenuous by negging his prospective girl before winning her over. On 'Marietta', we get the long-suffering boyfriend willing to wait for a flighty girl to come back, on 'Diners' we get an ex acting out recklessly as a result of the breakup with our narrator, and 'If You Don't Love Me' is a kissoff song that might as well be retitled 'Dump Me Already and Get It Over With' - and it's probably one of the better songs here! The one song where there seems to be any self-awareness is on the closer 'I Let You Go', where there is some regret at letting an ex go thinking she'd come back where she didn't, but beyond that, it's all so thin, it just doesn't connect with me whatsoever.

Now to be fair, that's not saying there aren't songs I like. 'Fake Roses' does a pretty solid job in capturing the loneliness of being left behind even though the interjection of a narrator playing the consoling party during the bridge undercuts the song, 'Call To War' takes a 'fighting for love' metaphor and manages to stretch the song to make it work, and 'Heaven Don't Call Me Home' is a pretty solid blues stomper that manages to be a fair bit of fun. But when push comes to shove, Then Came The Morning by The Lone Bellow is a sophomore slump, and a pretty disappointing one, if I'm being honest. What I find with every relisten to this record is a band that has no idea what it wants to be, instead grabbing elements with little cohesion and trying to fuse them into a workable sound - and without a clear artistic direction, you get mixed results that often turn more dull and underwhelming than outright bad. The sad fact is that I can't even say this music isn't for me, because when Hozier or The National find ways to make very similar collections of sounds work amazingly well, I'm forced to say The Lone Below is just not on the same level. That said, the album is still passable thanks to solid enough production and writing, so it's getting a 6/10, but only a recommendation if you wanted a softer, slightly more country-inspired version of an early record from The National - why you'd want that, I have no idea, but hey, to each their own, I guess.

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